KEVIN J. McCANN
In the Beginning…
The book and film concepts, research, writing and photography commenced some 38 years ago when I was an ambitious photographer living in Montauk, New York. As a 1969 college graduate in marketing and management I turned down career opportunities including attending law school to travel and photograph the world. As a self taught photographer taking thousands of images was exciting but it did not define who I was or where I was going. It was a career puzzle with scattered pieces. In the early 1970’s I was fortunate to become associated with Peter Hill Beard, an accomplished photographer, author and artist with whom I eventually began collaborating on proposed book and film projects. While living at his historic windmill estate “Thunderbolt Ranch” in 1977 the projects were progressing well when a devastating fire destroyed the entire three-story residence, seven years of research, some 16,000 negatives, hundreds of prints and exhibition photo murals, collectibles, a state of the art darkroom studio and a way of life wandering the world taking pictures and meeting people from all walks of life. Peter's lost was massive and devastating especially the lost of his personal diaries which I had just finished photographing every page using 100 rolls of film. The artwork, library, negatives, prints, research even the head of Mohammed, the oldest and largest African elephant was gone forever. At age 29 with $1.25 in my pocket I did what I had to do to survive. In the midst of political turmoil and 21 % interest rates I eventually managed to go to film school in New York, got married, moved to California and earned a living but unfortunately not as a photographer or film maker. For some 30 years I’ve nurtured and kept multiple projects alive while my wife and I raised two wonderful children. At this juncture two of the projects have been rekindled and organized to a point where I believe I am ready to venture down the publication trail.
Creating a book out of a puzzle….
Life is about relationships and you never know when they start or end or what lies in between. Some you remember and some you forget but there’s a story behind them all. The proposed books reveal two stories about relationships that haven’t been forgotten and haven’t been adequately told.
I grew up in the picturesque and historical hamlet of Montauk, New York on Long Island’s eastern tip. The final point where rolling hills meet the Atlantic Ocean that has been the host to fascinating events in the early development of America. Created by a receding glacial movement, it was the homeland of indigenous Algonquin Indians, where the “cowboy” was born, 16th and 17th century Europeans set up cod fishing camps, strategic 18th century lighthouses were built, majestic sailing ships wrecked on the coastal shores and harvesting giant beached whales and shore whaling was a way of life. It was a place where pirates hid, explorers explored, early American flags flew, liquor prohibition lead to bootlegging as way to make big money and where the revolutionary war, the civil war, the War of 1812, WWI, and WWII played important roles, Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders recovered from malaria after the Spanish American War and much more. In the 1920’s it was known as the “Millionaires’ Paradise” and as the “Miami Beach of the North” that created a wonderful playground for the high society players. The Firestones, the Chryslers, the Astors, the Lindberghs, the Fishers, the Vanderbilt’s and a flood of others flocked to the new playground of the western world. American history emanates from this sacred place attracting the curious mind and I clearly gravitated to its beckoning call. Montauk was a neat place growing up and for a kid from the other side of the tracks I lived and worked in that paradise until leaving in late 1977. Regardless of the unfortunate departure the relationship has been nursed and fed with annual visits and continued research till this day. What started out as a regional photography project has now evolved into educational and fascinating stories for the engaging and concerned world audience.
At Thunderbolt Ranch the derivative thinking and founding influences for the projects provided structure, purpose, direction and for me, an intelligent approach to do something important as a photographer. Unwittingly and slowly the career puzzle was morphing into an unrecognizable shape. The first piece came from Herman Melville, in the first chapter of Moby Dick, “Loomings” he eloquently philosophizes about the meaning of life offering rationale that man’s subconscious attraction to the meditative magic of water lures people to where they can see their own image in the water’s reflection. “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” That’s what researching historic photographs is truly about, grasping phantom images from past lives to tell a story. As a photographer that’s what I was doing, snatching phantoms out of the Montauk time warp. A second formative influence finds its roots in American Studies pioneer and scholar Dr. Leo Marx who represented research and theory that America was an experimental society with a fate that would be determined only by time. It was this intellectual analysis and study that filled in a crucial piece of the puzzle. Perhaps it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said “All life is an experiment. The more experiments the better” that unconsciously hinted to me to recognize Montauk as an experiment and nudged me to tell its story. At this point Montauk became the main character. A defining influence, with a metaphysical touch, in solving the puzzle that established a premise for the project was by Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset’s penetrating thought “I am myself and surroundings." “I am me and Montauk” immediately came to mind and I realized this special place was the perfect vehicle to illustrate the American experiment and I, personally, was the hook to hang it on. The main character now had a reliable supporting character. The plan was to gather and compile records of photographic imagery, educate myself about who I was and that my own photographic work would tell an interesting American story. The first family photo was from 1863 and the first Montauk related photo was from 1867. Analyzing the story of a photograph came from the British artist Francis Bacon who said “Photography, for me, brings us back to the actual event more clearly, more directly. Contemplation allows me to imagine my own truth, and the idea that I get of this truth helps me to discover other ideas, and so on…My work becomes a chain of ideas created by the many images that I look at and which I have registered, often on contrasting subjects.” These were the fundamental influences that wove different threads into ideas creating a vision for a book. The career puzzle was taking a positive shape and for over five years it evolved as I was entrenched in the creative environment of Thunderbolt Ranch where snatching phantoms was a daily activity and life, art, theatre and photography blended into one tasty soup. In a 1978 newspaper interview I said “I used Montauk as a reflection on myself, as a microcosm of the world.” For years I had collected and make copy negatives of numerous photo albums, photographs, glass plate negatives, maps, illustrations, postcards, letters, film footage, books and whatever of Montauk images. This search lead to the acquisition of a rare glass plate negative collection pre 1900. It was clear then that I was involved in a long term relationship with Montauk but not quite sure what the future would hold. Now 38 years later I remain joined to Montauk and these book/ film projects forever. Solving a life puzzle created ideas for multiple books. The Swords of Thetis and William Wallace Tooker Photo Collection are presented as they would be easier to complete, most interesting and marketable.